I was talking to a friend recently when he told me something I’ve heard many parents say, “My son has difficulty with transitions.”
He went on to describe the battle that happens every afternoon when it’s time for his son to get off the computer and begin his homework. He warns his son that in ten minutes he’ll need to turn off the computer and start homework. When the time comes to begin, his son ignores his requests to turn off the computer or says, “I just need to finish this level.” Five minutes later he again tells him he needs to turn off the computer. Then the son begins resenting his father’s nagging and tells him, “Get off my back! I said I’m getting off.” Voices get raised. Soon they’re yelling, and the computer is still on.
There were daily struggles to get him out of the house to school and getting him to the dinner table. “Any transition from one thing to another seems to be a huge drama,” he said to me.
Then I said to my friend, “It’s clear your son has difficulty moving from video games to homework and from television in the morning to getting dressed to leave for school, but what about the reverse? Does he have difficulty transitioning from homework to video games, or transitioning from school to coming home?”
“No, none of that’s ever a problem” he said.
“So your son doesn’t have a problem with transitions. You have a problem getting your son to do things he doesn’t want to do?”
He laughed and said, “Yeah that sounds right”
If it was really a difficulty with transitions, that would mean broadly having difficulty switching from one activity to another, from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity, or from a non-preferred activity to a preferred activity. If there’s no difficultly transitioning from a non-preferred activity to something else, then clearly the problem isn’t transitions.
The problem is doing what they don’t prefer.
By using the phrase “difficulty with transitions” we pathologize what is actually normal, healthy behavior.
In truth, the child has no problem at all, it’s the adult that has the problem. The adult has difficulty getting the child to do what the child doesn’t want to do – plain and simple.
By saying the child has “problems with transitions” we make what is inherently an adult problem to solve a child’s pathology. What should be “I can’t get that child to do anything they don’t want to do” becomes, “That child has an inability processing a change from one activity to another.”
To be fair, there are a small percentage of children who do have difficulty with transitions, whether it’s transitions toward or away from preferred activities, but they are now the rare exceptions. Initially, the term “difficulty with transitions” was likely meant to describe children who obsessively fixate on the activity in front of them and then have a real inability, or great difficulty, disengaging from one activity and beginning another. Children with moderate to severe autism come to mind. In the case of these children, the “difficulty with transitions” would present itself in both directions, toward and away from a preferred activity.
The use of the term “difficulty with transitions” to pathologize behaviors in children that are actually normal and healthy isn’t just common among parents it’s commonly misused among educators and psychiatric professionals.
Whether it’s at school or at home, mistaking normal willful behavior for disorder or disability can cause serious problems. When adults attribute a behavior to inability, the natural response is to create accommodations or give more lengthy explanations to help the assumed thinking problem. In either case the result is a real disconnect between the adult and the child. The adult is assuming and speaking to problems that aren’t there and consequently are less able to address the actual problem.
Additionally, a sort of shadow relationship between the adult and child starts to develop. The adult assumes an inability that doesn’t exist. The child learns that encouraging this fallacy allows them to avoid doing the things they don’t want to do and feign even less ability. The adult unwittingly makes more accommodations, more convinced that an actual disorder exists, while simultaneously becoming more frustrated at the lack of response to their requests. The cycle feeds itself.
It will take a conscious and concerted effort for parents and teachers to actively go against the current culture that encourages us to pathologize our children. If we are to move toward healthier and more honest relationships with our children, the first step is to assume our children are able of much more than we know. Only then can we take the responsibility to deal squarely and honestly with the strong, empowered children we’ve worked so hard to raise.